For nearly 50 years, the Lyric Theatre sat empty.
Older generations knew it as a ghost from another time — when it was a dazzling beacon of East End activity for the segregated African-American community. Younger generations grew up hearing these stories and wondered what those days were like. For still others, the crumbling building at Third Street and Elm Tree Lane was just another vacant edifice.
This fall, the Lyric will open its doors for the first time since 1963.
While workers were busy completing the $6 million renovation, the Lexington Art League was commemorating the Lyric's reopening with a public art project: one great big quilt pieced together by more than 100 pairs of hands.
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Program director Joan Brannon came up with idea with the hope that a new era for the Lyric and the community could be woven out of the patchwork experiences of the past.
"Making this quilt honored ancestors who used quilting to tell stories and to keep them warm," Brannon says. "Our approach was non-traditional but has the same relevance as a vehicle for telling stories."
LAL revived the old-fashioned quilting bee, hosting gatherings at churches, libraries and neighborhood centers through the summer. Young and old, women and men, experienced seamstresses and those who had never threaded a needle worked side by side, each adding his or her "piece" to the fabric of the whole.
The completed quilt will not be revealed until the Lyric's grand opening, but an exhibit of Transylvania University senior H.B. Elam's photographs documenting the making of the quilt is on display at the LAL @ the Mayor's Office gallery from Friday through Oct. 29. It is part of Friday's Gallery Hop.
Elam's photos capture the intimacy and emotional power of the quilters' experience as they shared stories, bridged generational divides and stitched together a fragmented past. Close-up shots of hands at work juxtaposed with textured bits of emotion and fabric define the 25 photos.
Elam, a photographer for Transy's student newspaper, saw his role as a documenter in a wider artistic framework.
"The complicated thing about this project is that it is a project of a project," he says. He was hired to interpret the quilt's genesis via an artistic lens, not to take pictures for the record.
At first, the scope of the quilt's creative potential was overwhelming, he says. "It was a lot to try to capture."
Over time, as Elam attended more quilting bees, his vision began to focus.
"I found that I kept going back to close-ups of hands and fabric or of people working with their faces near the fabric, ... something where the fabric and the person became really close together in a physical sense."
As Elam shot more than 1,000 photographs, project facilitator Sarah Campbell, an art teacher, provided participants with creative inspiration and direction.
"We encouraged them to reflect on the history of African-Americans in our community and to incorporate meaningful images and objects such as family photographs, charms and jewelry," she said. "We also offered some guiding words to get people started and to help unify the quilt."
Those words were spirit, vision, challenge, triumph and love, concepts woven throughout the quilt and stamped with each individual's personal contribution.
Campbell's hope for the art project's reception is a microcosm for the Lyric's potential to redefine a community.
"I hope people will take the time to look closely at the quilt squares," Campbell says, "and to think about the way that people with very different backgrounds can come together, maintaining their individuality but creating something unified and whole."
Brannon's sentiments echo Campbell's.
"I hope the community is able to see itself in the quilt," she said. "I hope this will help the public understand that art is important, that working together as a community is important. And that the Lyric will be a place where the two can intersect in a powerful way."